Review of Clayton Byrd Goes Underground

Clayton Byrd Goes Underground
by Rita Williams-Garcia
Intermediate, Middle School    Amistad/HarperCollins    166 pp.    g
5/17    978-0-06-221591-8    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-221594-9    $9.34

“Electric blues sparks jumped out into the night” when Cool Papa Byrd plays his guitar in Washington Square Park, and all grandson Clayton wants is to be waved in for a twelve-bar solo on his blues harp (harmonica); “to be a true bluesman among bluesmen.” Clayton and Cool Papa are Byrds of a feather in their love of the blues, and to Clayton, Cool Papa is a grandfather, blues master, mentor, and best friend all in one. But when Cool Papa dies suddenly, Clayton is miserable. He decides to run away and join Cool Papa’s band, the Bluesmen, but has to take the subway to find them. In an unforgettable scene, Clayton, armed with his blues harp and wearing Cool Papa’s brown porkpie hat, enters the underworld of the New York City subway system — a child Orpheus — where he spends a good portion of the book meeting interesting characters and performing. As in One Crazy Summer (rev. 3/10), Williams-Garcia writes an appealing, realistic story with frequent elegant turns of phrase (“Clayton stepped onto the subway platform, a fast- and slow-moving jigsaw puzzle with live pieces entering, exiting, milling, and turning”). The third-person voice helps to keep Clayton’s story from becoming self-absorbed, as he learns to navigate the literal and figurative underworld and then find his way back to the everyday world of family, friends, and school. An author’s note outlines the history of the blues and provides insight into the origins of this fine novel.

From the May/June 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Dean Schneider
Dean Schneider teaches seventh and eighth grades at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.

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